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Drones to give rural students access to internet

Published: Mar. 4, 2021 at 9:03 PM CST
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EAGLE RIVER, Wis. (WSAW) - Students in the Northland Pines School District will soon have access to high-speed broadband internet after an announcement by Governor Tony Evers that they will be receiving a grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC).

It’s a $100,000 grant that’s allowing Forest County Economic Development to test out a tethered, drone-based internet system from Wisconsin Telelift.

Although Northland Pines School District provides the latest technology to its students, that doesn’t mean all students have proper access to high-speed internet.

“The great thing about technology is it can fill voids and opportunities that maybe you can’t provide while at school,” Northland Pines District Administrator Scott Foster said.

It’s a problem the WEDC is trying to help solve with a grant.

“So much of education is online, that if those households that don’t have high-speed internet or broadband access to the internet, they’re just going to be really behind the curve,” WEDC Deputy Secretary and Chief Operating Officer Sam Rikkers said.

The $100,000 will help pay for a tethered drone that will float over 200 feet above the ground and expand existing cell phone service tower internet connections.

The drone can be in the air for six hours, and would only be used outside of school hours and snow days.

“Does it replace a tower? No, but it does have a lot of capabilities to help us when there are times where students really do need the internet for learning,” Foster said.

Foster said up to 50% of families in the rural area could use better access to the internet, while about 10% have no access at all, which is an issue that became more evident by the pandemic.

“The pandemic has really turned a magnifying glass to what it means when you don’t have internet access at home,” Rikkers said.

The pilot program is set to begin in March, and the project will last for about six months in total.

If the pilot is a success, they hope this will eventually lead to more permanent structures for internet connection.

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